THEATRE / Measured solution to the problem play

Click to follow
REVIVALS of Measure for Measure often turn into games of Spot the Duke. Who is he? God on earth; the play's prize hypocrite; a Viennese forerunner of Freud? Even performances free from such concepts feel obliged to keep up appearances and endow the old trickster with the dignity of his rank.

As we first see him in Steven Pimlott's Edwardian production, he is sitting in a bare room stripped to his shirt and braces, planning his departure with the furtive haste of a man on the run who has no interest whatever in personal dignity. Michael Feast makes him an alarming figure: shaved head craning and swivelling between his listeners with reptilian speed, and a manner switching vertiginously between affability and warning. He is always in action. He is someone who makes things happen, but whom we are never going to get to know.

In that sense, he represents the whole show. Closing the Shakespearean circle may be the director's main job; but some circles - and this comedy is one of them - are destined to stay open. Crystal clear thematically, its narrative clashes with contradictory details. What Pimlott has grasped is that the contradictions in no way impair the play's vitality; so, instead of trying to tidy them up, he pushes them into the foreground. A humane Provost (David Killick) heads a pack of uniformed club-wielding thugs. Isabella's bed-trick is performed with the aid of a black Mariana (Tanya Moodie), thus pushing to absurdity the Elizabethan idea that all girls are alike in the dark. As Lucio, Barry Lynch is simultaneously a loyal friend and a vicious parasite. Take your pick. And amid the last-act reconciliations, you spot poor pregnant Juliet gazing down from an upper gallery, still gagged and handcuffed.

Meanwhile, the central moral action unfolds with exemplary clarity. Ashley Martin- Davies's unitary set presents the city as prison interior, so that the effect of decisions made at the top is instantly registered lower down the social scale. All, apart from the Duke, are locked inside this brick-and- metal hemisphere, where the the key word, 'seeming', recurs in an obsessive crescendo.

Stella Gonet and Alex Jennings play this duet with a textual care that articulates every emotional adjustment on the route from piety to homicidal corruption. Gonet succeeds in freeing Isabella's outraged response from any sense of religious hysteria (later she even manages to reclaim 'More than our brother is our chastity' as a matter-of-fact line). Jennings's Angelo, first seen as a model of baby-faced gravity, performs a marvellous self-dismantling act: first struck with panic and self-loathing (at 'What is't I dream of?' his voice becomes a bestial growl); then approaching her with tongue-tied embarrassment, grovelling confession, and brutal assault.

Finally he collects himself for a dignified exit, externally just the man he was before his transformation. Mr Hyde vanishes inside Dr Jekyll.

What this production offers to an extraordinary degree is the double world of Measure for Measure: a precisely plotted psychological drama inside an arbitrary and irrational framework. Much as I admire the first, what will stick in the memory is the second: with the figure of Feast's ducal Friar, driving himself to tears in pleading with Toby Stephens's impassive Claudio, gleefully hatching out the next gratuitously tormenting plot twist. Who is the Duke this time? He is Puck.

The opening scenes of John Ford's The Broken Heart of 1633 - in which an all-conquering Spartan general, Ithocles, returns home, having subdued his sister to a loveless marriage - proclaim a tragedy of blood and honour, involving a pack of grandees insatiable for political and sexual dominion.

No sooner is Ithocles installed as royal favourite than he tries to make amends to the wronged Penthea and her abandoned lover. Equally her husband, Bassanes, changes from a jealous tyrant into a repentant old man. Only Penthea's lost beloved - Orgilus, the play's apparent hero - proves incapable of change, driving the action to a final pile-up of corpses.

With its unexplored background of feuds and neighbouring wars, this is not an easy piece to focus. Like Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, it is about people following their desires in suicidal opposition to the social imperatives. But as the revengeful Orgilus, no less than his victims, is obeying this impulse, the moral centre of gravity shifts from scene to scene.

Ford conveys this sense of communal heartbreak with muffled, halting poetry, which Michael Boyd's production matches with an elegiac score (Craig Armstrong) and walking dances and declamatory outpourings that fall just short of song. Having thus caught the prevailing tone of the play, the show can make excursions into violence and buffoonery without falling to pieces.

The lead casting - Emma Fielding's stoically frozen Penthea, Iain Glen's fatally obsessed Orgilus, and Philip Voss's possessively besotted Bassanes - is superb: three doomed figures performing a present-tense action on borrowed time. The second half, which includes the amazing scene of the Spartan princess (Olivia Williams) who defies the news of her father's and husband's death, takes you into a rarefied emotional zone where few other dramatists could live.

A brief but strong recommendation for The Tenth Man, resourcefully adapted by Kate Brooke from Graham Greene's 1944 story of cowardice and atonement in occupied France. Greene's moral ironies and masterly plotting are vividly projected by Brooke's company, who move with ease between private characters, public types, and supporting chorus for the fine central partnership of Peter Aubrey and Barry Ewart as the tormented protagonist and his masquerading alter ego. A more muted welcome for Shaun Duggan's Boy, a charmingly played but structurally ramshackle tale of homosexual awakening in Liverpool.

'Measure for Measure': Royal Shakespeare, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'The Broken Heart': Swan, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'The Tenth Man': New End, 071- 794 0022. 'Boy': Lyric, Hammersmith, 081-741 2311.

(Photograph omitted)